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FRONT International is all climax and tight resolution | Pro Club Bd

Discreetly attached to a chain link gate and leaning against an overturned truck is a small folded paper drawing by Sol LeWitt (Untitled, 1973). Above hangs a lively painting by Horace Pippin showing an a cappella quartet (harmonizing, 1944). This is Ahmet Öğüt’s tense composition Bakunin’s barricade (2015–ongoing), an implementation of socialist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin’s unfulfilled 1849 proposal to barricade Prussian forces with paintings from national museums. On view for the first time outside of Europe and from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin – one of the many venues at FRONT International 2022: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art – Bakunin’s barricade, must be loaned on request for use in “extreme economic, social, political upheavals and movements,” according to a contract hanging alongside the installation. The fact that political artworks by Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz are also appropriate makes Öğüt’s work read as a nuisance: If art only appears theoretically against oppression, we can just as well use it as a literal line of defense.

Langston Hughes, facsimiles of several drafts of Two Somewhat Different Epigrams, c. 1955–60, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, 2022. Manuscripts © Estate of Langston Hughes; Photo: Field Studio

Titled ‘Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows’ – inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem ‘Two Somewhat Different Epigrams’ (1957) – this second edition of the Triennial features 100 artists in more than 30 locations, responding to the recent far-right political shift in the US with the premise that art is a form of healing. A framework that keeps asking what art can do, however, resorts to metaphors. And while much of the work bravely defies repression, the Triennial as a whole is but a climax and scant resolution.

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Abigail DeVille, The Dream Keeper, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Quincy Garden. Courtesy: the artist; Photo: Field Studio.

In a glass box gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Firelei Baéz revives the ruins of northern Haiti’s Sans Souci Palace (formerly the residence of King Henry Christophe, a war hero in the country’s independence revolution in 1804) with a series of blue arches, protruding from the wall and decorated with raised fists, broken chains and black panthers. Titled the vast ocean of all possibilities (19°36’16.9″N 72°13’07.0″W, 41°30’32.3″N 81°36’41.7″W) (2022), the installation resembles an unconvincing stage set – too fabricated in decay, too tended in the rubble – on which these symbols of resistance unfortunately become decorative. A similar ornament is found in Devan Shimoyamas February (2018), a silk flower hoodie honoring teen victim of racial violence Trayvon Martin, opening the Akron Art Museum’s group presentation. Superficially a touching act of remembrance, the work ultimately seems superficial. The silk flowers add beauty to a culturally and often tragically charged garment, but make it a sugary distraction, like a luxury item.

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Sarah Oppenheimer and Tony Cokes SM-2N: sldrty?, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station. Courtesy: the artists; Photo: Brad Feinkopf

Positioned in the narrow space of the Sculpture Center, Abigail Deville’s The Dream Keeper (2022) is somewhat more successful. The precariousness of their conglomerate of scaffolding, foil, plastic, chicken wire and salt is compounded by the sharpening of a hacksaw. Brief local stories—from indigenous artifacts to salt mining to photographic documentation of African Americans in the community prior to the great migration of the early 20th century—are conveyed through film projection and photocopied essays that are folded and draped over the installation.

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Wong Kit Yi (黄潔宜), Inner Voice Transplant, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Emily Davis Gallery at Oberlin College. Courtesy: the artist; Photo: Field Studio

However, what the Triennial loses in coherence it more than makes up for, bringing a remarkable wealth of art to the region. In addition to institutions, art can also be found in neighborhood classrooms, bars, libraries, hospitals, factories, gardens, and more. The breadth suggests that FRONT is really a public – even local – triennial to be seen in parts over time. In addition, the pocket guide to the exhibition includes a question designed to reveal the art on display at each venue. For example: “How can an artwork slow down the fast pace of consumption and make us look deeper?” Or: “What can storytelling teach us about care, memory, trauma and grief?” Perhaps the answers to these questions overlap the use of “good” or “bad” art.

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Haseeb Ahmed, Defeat the Void!, 2022, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, SPACES. Courtesy: the artist and Harlan Levey Projects, Brussels; Photo: Field Studio

Probably the most successful component of FRONT is the film and video program, the works of which gradually reveal their inwardness. Tony Cokes has installed monitors in spaces across the city; paramount is a new collaboration with Sarah Oppenheimer on Transformer Station. SM-2N: sldrty? (2022), a Suprematist fragmentation of space, encourages visitors to guide two caster-mounted black bars on axles, moving screens and projectors to temporarily censor and focus Cokes’ remarkably muted video about cultural siloing. Across the street at the Community Jazz Club Bop Stop, Martin Beck’s Last night (2016) loops on stage in complete darkness. The work, shown on the Triennale’s opening and closing weekends, is a complete, perfectly framed transposition of every record DJ David Mancuso played at a 1984 SoHo loft party: the needle levitates and sways, the record wobbles, the label blurs. The beat could go on forever.

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Jumana Manna, Wild relatives, 2018, installation view, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, SPACES, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London; Photo: Field Studio

In a back room of the Cleveland Public Library, Moyra Davey paces back and forth during her film horse opera (2019–22) while telling the story of Elle, a young woman who may have been at Mancuso’s party. Davey’s narration is staggered, like the rocking of her zoomed-in camera, which is fixed in wonder at birdhouses, a dragonfly caught in a net, and a flying squirrel. In a darkened study in the Cleveland Clinic’s Samson Pavilion, Wong Kit Yi makes his debut Inner Voice Transplant (2022), a similarly low-key video essay subtitled like a karaoke track. A cheap disco ball twirls between generic couches as we listen to Wong link ancient medicine to her recovering mother Jiangshi, or Chinese hopping vampire, cursed to steal souls forever. In another repurposed space of the pavilion, Naeem Mohaiemen introduces screens Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown, 2021), a comprehensive attempt to understand how and why life ends. Towards the end of the film, a husband and wife perform one last waltz amidst medical equipment in what we realize may have just been an unfulfilled wish.

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cooking departments, To those who feed themselves2022. Courtesy and Photo: Cooking Sections.

Although ‘Two Somewhat Different Epigrams’ is only four lines long, Hughes arrived at the poem after collaborative revision – his papers can be seen in an accompanying exhibition at the Cleveland Public Library. An extra preposition or a misplaced line break can mean the difference between exaggeration and deep feeling. So maybe it’s the arts activist collective Cooking Sections whose work is most successful. Since the 1960s, nearby Lake Erie and its associated microclimate has been steadily dying due to heavy industrial pollution. Cooking Sections installed two fountains in the harbor to re-oxygenate the lake, but they are just a poignant symbol – hundreds, maybe thousands more would be needed. In the SPACES gallery, there is nothing to show for the collective’s contribution apart from a photo and the coordinates of the fountains – because maybe We have reached our limits to show environmental or political awareness. Other works at SPACES support this ethos: Jumana Mannas Wild relatives (2018) is a patient, observational epic of seed-spreading, while Haseeb Ahmed has brought to the gallery a real-time opera of the wind and its rhythms (Defeat the Void, 2022). The presentation at SPACES is not about confirmation, but about willing optimism. Over the next three years, Cooking Sections will bring local farmers together in hopes of reducing their use of chemical fertilizers. We can only hope that once the work leaves the gallery, it will continue its destination in the world.

FRONT International 2022 is on view through October 2nd at various locations in Cleveland, USA.

Main image: “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows”, 2022, exhibition view, FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, Cleveland. Photo: Field Studio

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